The emergence of new technologies requires conditions tailored to specific industrial sectors. Social scientists at Eawag have developed a conceptual framework describing the relevant innovation drivers. This should make it possible to identify factors hindering innovation and to design industry‑specific support programmes.
By Andres Jordi
Knowledge societies rely on innovative industries to maintain their competitiveness in the global market. For this reason, various funding instruments are available in Switzerland. In 2016, for example, the Swiss Innovation Park was opened, with sites in Allschwil, Biel, Dübendorf, Lausanne and Villigen. Here, Swiss and foreign companies are to collaborate closely with federal research institutes to turn good ideas into marketable products.
Science- and experience-based industries
But what does it take for new technologies to arise and succeed economically? This question is being studied by Christian Binz and Bernhard Truffer of the Environmental Social Sciences department at Eawag. They have developed a conceptual framework that can be used to analyse innovation processes in, for example, clean-tech industries or the water sector (see Box). Binz points out: “Industrial sectors differ in the type of knowledge they require to generate innovations.” The social scientists differentiate between science-based and experience-based industries: the former apply scientific principles to produce knowledge that is codified in models, patents or reports. Companies in this area have close links with universities and conduct their own R&D; knowledge is frequently exchanged via international networks. Biotech firms or the photovoltaic industry fall into this category.
In contrast, industries such as wastewater treatment or wind power rely on experience‑based knowledge and practical skills. Here, new knowledge is generated primarily through “learning by doing” and informal exchanges between different internal departments and with external actors. Innovations arise, not from formal R&D, but from solution-oriented producer-user interactions. Experience-based industries are often rooted in the (historically evolved) institutional contexts of specific regions. According to Binz, “Most industries depend on some combination of science- and experience‑based knowledge.”
Standardized and customized products
However, apart from their knowledge base, industries also differ in the degree of standardization of their products or services. Thus, standardized products such as shampoos or smartphones have similar characteristics all over the world and serve a global mass market. Consumers’ preferences are relatively undifferentiated, and their decisions are mainly based on price. Customized products – e.g. in the areas of urban water management or legal advice – are tailored to the specific needs of particular user groups and, accordingly, to local niche markets.